In July of 1956, Virginia Tech became the first university in the United States to install a Nuclear Reactor Simulator. The simulator was installed as part of an atomic energy laboratory in Davidson Hall which was home to the Department of Physics at that time.
The laboratory also included a two-million-volt nuclear accelerator “built by staff members and graduate students,” and the “first university-owned graphite-moderated exponential reactor”, a sub-critical reactor made possible after the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) approved Virginia Tech to receive “a neutron source and 2,500 pounds of natural uranium metal”.
According to The Techgram following their interview with Dr. T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., the sub-critical reactor was scheduled to come online in July (only six months after the approval) “because college technicians have been at work for two months machining the 32,000 pounds of reactor graphite to be used in this new facility. The exponential pile will therefore be nearing completion and will be a tour feature when Virginia Tech is host to the Eighth Oak Ridge Regional Symposium on Atomic Energy and Science in its first Virginia appearance July 30-31.”
The symposium hosted by Virginia Tech with support from the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies (now the Oak Ridge Associated Universities – Virginia Tech has been a sponsoring institution since 1946) marked the opening of the lab. It included a short course in nuclear engineering physics, a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Atomic Energy (now the American Museum of Science & Energy), a film from General Electric “A is for Atom”, and various symposia on nuclear topics.
Two years after the opening of the lab, in 1958, Virginia Tech was awarded a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission that allowed the institution to purchase a 10-kilowatt Argonaut (Argonne Nuclear Assembly for University Training) reactor, a class of small nuclear research reactors based on the one developed at the Argonne National Laboratory. Unlike the sub-critical reactor that was already in operation, the Argonaut was a critical reactor meaning that the nuclear chain reaction would be self-sustaining. Virginia Tech was set to be the first university in the United States to install this new type of research reactor (according to Wikipedia, it’s possible the University of Florida beat Virginia Tech into operation by about six months).
This new reactor was installed in the New Physics Building (now Robeson Hall) which was about to begin construction. It first achieved criticality in mid-December 1959 and was officially placed into operation on January 6, 1960. The occasion was marked by a dedication ceremony featuring an address by Lieutenant Governor A.E.S. Stephens. Eventually, the reactor’s operating capacity was increased from 10-kilowatts to 100-kilowatts.
The atomic energy laboratories were expanded again in 1968 with the addition of a van de graaff accelerator. Four years later, on November 12, 1971, there was a “Nuclear Event” and Robeson Hall was evacuated. Our collections include a document called the “Appendix to Report of the Nuclear Event of November 12, 1971”. Despite searching extensively, I have not been able to locate the actual report to which this is an appendix. The document we have includes 161 pages of transcribed interviews with people involved in the event. The document has not been digitized but I’ve scanned the first few pages which include a description of the event by Ronald J. Onega. The full report is available in Special Collections and University Archives (https://catalog.lib.vt.edu/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=603347).
The scram was at 3:05, … Bill attempted to bring the sample up and all the alarms went off. … This was in Room 106 where the experiment was being carried on and the reactor console is in Room 108, so I ran over there to find out if it was serious, if it was real or to see what the situation was. The alarm went on to begin with, as well as I recall, and then it went off and then it came back on. … It was suggested that the sample be knocked loose. We could see that the sample didn’t return, so I think that Keith suggested that we try to dislodge the sample, which was the reasonable suggestion, it seemed to me at that particular time, to dislodge the sample by firing another one in. We did that and whenever we brought the sample back, it was radioactive. It was very hot and so when we discerned this I think Bob Stone went out to get a lead container to put the hot radioactive sample in, and we fired it in again as I recall. We fired this sample in twice in order to try to dislodge this and bring it back, and neither time did the original sample come back. The sample was then – the container to dislodge the original one was then taken out of the rabbit, put into the lead container, as well as the end cap for the rabbit. Bill Raymond went and got another lead container in case we could get the original sample back, and he also got another end cap for the rabbit which I think he got from Room 17 from Furr’s lab. We tried several times to bring the sample back but none of it was successful. Well, after we saw we weren’t going to get it loose, Bob Stone, Sy Meyers, Bill Raymond and myself took some survey meters and we were trying to find out exactly where this sample was hung up. The sample was hung up right at the edge of the reactor shield itself. It was in the rabbit tubing, right at the edge of the shield and whenever we discerned exactly where it was, we got a screwdriver and disconnected the tubing there, taped the end shut and also disconnected the tubing, the other end of this aluminum tube that the sample was in, and taped that end shut. I handed the tube to Bob Stone who was standing on the top of the hot cell and he lowered the tube, with the sample in the tube, down into the hot cell where it still remains. Both ends of the remaining tubing were also sealed shut. … I guess I neglected to say that sometime previous to this, the building had been evacuated. I don’t remember exactly what that time was. I estimate, Bill and I estimated, that the whole incident required, perhaps from the time the sample, from the time the building alarm went off, originally, until the sample was secured in the hot cell may have been around twenty (20) minutes. But that is as good as we can estimate. During this time I also had a pocket dosimeter on, and during the whole business I got 51 millirem of radiation. After the sample was secured, then we tried to discern exactly what the situation was and we saw that we did have a contamination problem. Furr’s lab was used to discern exactly whether fission fragments were scattered around or not, and it was discerned that they were.“Appendix to Report of the Nuclear Event of November 12, 1971” 1971. Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech.
Other than that incident, the atomic energy laboratories seem to have operated smoothly under both the Physics and Mechanical Engineering departments. The Virginia Tech Argonaut Reactor (VTAR) was remodeled in 1983 with new control panels. Three years later, in 1986, it was decommissioned. It was removed from Robeson Hall in 1989.